Attention, Parents: Keep Track Of The Sweet Stuff

Attention, Parents: Keep Track Of The Sweet Stuff
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Editor's note: The American Heart Association released on Monday its first-ever scientific statement on added sugar for children. It's part of an aggressive approach the organization is taking on this issue, one that you will be reading more about in this space in the coming weeks and months.

If you have children 18 or younger, I encourage you to look in your pantry and pull out three of your kids' favorite items. For variety's sake, pluck one each from breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Next, locate the nutrition labels and add up the amount of sugar.

Odds are, your total will be above 25 grams ... perhaps even well above. And that's just too much.

A new scientific statement from the American Heart Association recommends that no one between the ages of 2 and 18 should consume more than 25 grams of added sugars per day. That's 6 teaspoons, or 100 calories.

The statement, based on several scientific studies, also recommends no more than 8 ounces of sugary beverages per week. That's less than a typical 12-ounce can of soda. But the problem goes well beyond soda, because sugars' also added in to sports drinks, sweet tea and some so-called fruit drinks also can be packed with sugars.

This guidance goes beyond the notion of avoiding an extra cookie for dessert. Excess sugar is a big problem, and the American Heart Association is committed to working hand-in-hand with parents to improve nutrition information, expand consumer choice for healthier options, and change policies that contribute to kids' sugary diets.

The reason is simple. There's a direct correlation between excess sugar consumption and cardiovascular diseases. The more added sugar we consume, the more at risk we are for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels.

While Americans of all ages are at risk, our first guidance is for children because many products they love are packed with added sugars, and it's obvious that we must improve the health of our next generation.

Now let's get back to your pantry.

How close to 25 grams did you get by adding up just three items?

A quick disclaimer: The nutrition facts panel currently lists total sugar, so this calculation is merely a ballpark figure. However, added sugars must be detailed on labels by July 2018.

Natural sugars -- such as fructose in fruit, and lactose in milk and dairy products -- are OK. The red flags are sugars that are added to foods. Some are concentrated from other foods and others are extracted or made from other foods. They go by a variety of names, such as corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, malt syrup, maltose, sucrose and trehalose. Seeing any of these terms near the front of the ingredients list means the food or beverage may be loaded with added sugars.

You also may be wondering about the blanket statement of 25 grams (or 6 teaspoons) for a wide age range across both genders and all ethnicities, and without factoring in height, weight or activity level.

The simple answer is that it's a target. Individual needs may vary, but the important thing is paying attention to added sugars and controlling intake. After all, if your child is eating, say, 75 grams of sugars a day, then getting down to 50 is a good start, and a smart approach to eventually weaning to 25.

Does 75 grams sound like a lot of added sugars? Well, that's exactly how much Dr. Miriam Vos, the lead author of the statement, says the typical American child consumes daily. She added that children drink their age in sugary drink servings each week. And all these sugars amount to lots of empty calories. These aren't the calories kids need because of their important nutrients; no, empty calories are the ones that lead to children becoming overweight or obese.

Another aspect of this scientific statement is that children younger than 2 should completely avoid added sugars. Their diets should be packed with the foods people of every age should be striving to eat, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grains, milk, lean meat, poultry and fish.

We develop our taste for foods early in life, so the more toddlers learn to crave healthy foods -- and the longer they wait to eat sugar-packed alternatives -- the more likely they are to become healthier eaters as adults.

The AHA is not alone in encouraging reduced sugar consumption.

Last year, the World Health Organization recommended that adults and children reduce their intake of "free sugars" to less than 10 percent of total calories. "Free sugars" is WHO's term for sugars that are added to food and drinks during processing. WHO also said that reducing free sugars to less than 5 percent of calories would be even more beneficial; well, that comes out to about 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, just as our statement recommends.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans by the Food and Drug Administration also recommended fewer than 10 percent of calories come from added sugars.

In a way, all this data confirms what we already knew: Too much added sugar is a problem.

Yet now we have some tools to do something about it. We have the research that gives us hard numbers to aim for, and the information on the food labels that can help guide us, with even more-detailed information coming in less than two years.

From my perch, we are headed in the right direction. I hope the view from your pantry will soon be headed that way, too.


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